The Iran Hostage Crisis

Today’s post comes from Michael J. Hancock, archives specialist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library has published a new online exhibit, The Iran Hostage Crisis, and an A.P. US History Lesson Plan in support of National Archives civics programming. Through the lens of primary sources, images, and the U.S. Constitution, the exhibit examines the causes of the crisis, those 444 days of captivity, and the impacts of this conflict.

“Before God and my fellow citizens, I wanted to exert every ounce of my strength and ability during these last few days to achieve their liberation.” ~President Jimmy Carter

On November 4, 1979, Iranian students in Tehran seized the U.S. Embassy and took 52 Americans hostage. The Iran Hostage Crisis lasted for 444 days and ended minutes after President Jimmy Carter left office in 1981. 

In 1977 the Uniited States and Iran enjoyed a friendly diplomatic relationship. President Carter and the Iranian leader’s official discussions centered on peace prospects for the Middle East as well as ways to tackle the energy crisis that had hit the U.S. and other Western nations in the early 1970s. At the time, Carter hoped to enlist Iran’s help in supporting nuclear nonproliferation talks with the Soviet Union.

On November 15, 1977, President Jimmy Carter welcomed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, and his wife, Empress (or “Shahbanou”) Farrah, to Washington. Over the next two days, Carter and Pahlavi discussed improving relations between the United States and Iran. Two years later, the two leaders’ political destinies would be further entwined when Islamic fundamentalists forced out the Shah and took Americans hostage in Tehran.

The United States had an enormous stake in keeping Iran stable and independent. Iran was critical because it was a major source of oil for the industrial West and separated the Soviet Union from the Persian Gulf and the oil states.

By 1979, however, when Carter had been in office three years, the Shah’s hold on power was threatened, and the consequences of years of brutal and unpopular policies became evident. It was clear that the Shah had lost the support of his people.

During the Shah’s decades on Iran’s throne, there were numerous U.S. Presidents, each one having his own policy towards Iran. Though these policies may have differed from President to President, the Shah’s close ties to U.S. leaders served as one of the leading causes of the Iranian Revolution. However, the one steadfast policy shared by multiple administrations centered on American energy. In the United States, between 1940 and 1980, there was a population increase of 71 percent, and the Real Gross Domestic Product increased by 508 percent. To meet these demands, the U.S. became reliant on cheap fossil fuels and foreign oil. It wasn’t long before the U.S. imported 25 percent of OPEC’s (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil. A sustained effort by the United States to counter Soviet influence in the Middle East resulted in the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973–74 and brought about a 350-percent increase in the cost of oil.

In January 1979, the Shah fled into exile. The stability of the country, though, was being threatened by the political and religious activist, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who opposed the shah’s efforts to modernize and westernize Iran. The exiled Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran in February 1979 and whipped popular discontent into rabid anti-Americanism, and the theocratic regime of Khomeini took power. There was little understanding in the U.S. government about the political implications of this fundamentalist regime. In the beginning, the Carter administration made some effort to establish a relationship with the new government, but by late 1979 it seemed hopeless. 

Up until this crisis, few Americans seemed aware of the deep resentments that many Iranian people continued to harbor toward the United States, a country they considered a symbol of Western influence into their society. Part of the problem emerged from the desire of the Shah, in October 1979, to come to New York City for cancer treatment. President Carter understood that if he allowed the deposed Shah to come to the United States, Khomieni’s government would interpret the move as another example of the West’s interference in Iran’s affairs. 

“Unite America/Support President Carter” button. (Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, National Archives).

Throughout the Islamic revolution, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran had been the target of anti-American protests by Iranians. On February 14, 1979, less than a month after the deposed Shah fled to Egypt and Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, the embassy was occupied by armed Iranian guerrillas. U.S. Ambassador William H. Sullivan and some 100 staff members were held for a brief time until they were released by Khomeini’s revolutionary forces. Subsequently, Khomeini demanded that the U.S. minimize its presence in Iran, and Sullivan responded by reducing embassy personnel from 1,400 to approximately 70. Following this, a tenuous agreement of coexistence with Khomeini’s government was formed.  

However, when the shah came to the U.S. for cancer treatment in October, the Ayatollah incited Iranian militants to attack the U.S. On November 4, the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun and its employees taken captive. The hostage crisis had begun. 

President Carter committed himself to the safe return of the hostages while protecting U.S. interests and global influence. He pursued a policy of restraint that put a higher value on the lives of the hostages than on U.S. retaliatory power. A spectrum of responses were deployed, including direct appeals, economic sanctions, and a military rescue mission. The toll of patient diplomacy was great, but President Carter’s actions eventually brought freedom for the hostages. 

Carter exerted pressure on the Iranian government by imposing economic sanctions that were intended to be severe yet incremental. It served as a warning that the United States could escalate to other options, including military force, if needed. Carter eventually approved a hostage rescue mission, but it failed, and the aborted mission seemed to many Americans as a symbol of U.S. military weakness in the post-Vietnam era. 

It’s been said that there were “two White Houses” at the time of the crisis: One that was resolute in freeing the hostages and one that dealt with everything else. Aside from the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Carter administration faced foreign and domestic matters that included an energy crisis, peace talks between Egypt and Israel, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and a disaster at the nuclear facility at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. The burden of leadership wore on the administration.

During President Carter’s last days and weeks in office, he poured every effort in to freeing the hostages. Carter remarked later that, “Of course, their lives, safety, and freedom were the paramount considerations, but there was more to it. I wanted to have my decisions vindicated. It was very likely that I had been defeated and would soon leave office as President because I had clung to a cautious and prudent policy in order to protect their lives during the preceding fourteen months. Before God and my fellow citizens, I wanted to exert every ounce of my strength and ability during these last few days to achieve their liberation.”

Neither a multinational economic embargo of Iran nor the death of Shah Pahlavi in July 1980 broke Iran’s resolve. However, in mid-August, Iran installed a permanent post-revolutionary government that at least entertained the idea of reestablishing relations with the Carter administration. In addition, the September 22 onset of the years-long Iran-Iraq War reduced the Iranian officials’ ability and resolve to continue hostage negotiations.

The hostage crisis had grave consequences in President Carter’s attempt to win reelection in 1980. Many voters perceived his inability to resolve the crisis as a sign of weakness. To compound this, dealing with the crisis prevented him from campaigning effectively. The country was plagued by many problems—double-digit inflation, rising unemployment, the crisis in Iran, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Americans cast their ballots, and the result was a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan.

With neutral Algerian diplomats acting as intermediaries, new hostage negotiations continued throughout late 1980 and early 1981. Iran at last released the hostages on January 20, 1981, just moments after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the new U.S. President.

The consequences of the Iran Hostage Crisis were not limited to their geopolitical repercussions. There was a human toll as well. While American hostages suffered psychological and physical scars, some U.S. military personnel made the ultimate sacrifice. Iran also suffered greatly from the crisis.

Besides losing all international support in the Iran-Iraq War, Iran failed to get any of the concessions it had demanded of the United States. Today, some $1.973 billion of Iran’s assets remain frozen in the United States, and the U.S. has not imported any oil from Iran since 1992. 

Indeed, U.S.-Iranian relations have degraded steadily since the hostage crisis.

In 2015, the U.S. Congress created the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund to assist the surviving Iran hostages and their spouses and children. Under the legislation, each hostage is to receive $4.44 million, or $10,000 for each day they were held captive. By 2020, however, only a small percentage of the money had been paid out.

6 thoughts on “The Iran Hostage Crisis

  1. No mention of Reagan making a deal with Iran, prolonging the crisis to win election? Pure coincidence that they were released the exact moment he was sworn in?

      1. It was obvious, if you were around then, that the Iranians set the Americans free minutes after Reagan took office on purpose. They hated Carter, hated his collaboration with the Shah, so it was a chance to stick it to him by denying him success in freeing the hostages. And the hostage crisis helped eject him from the highest office in the world. They knew what they were doing. They may be fundamentalist crackpots, but not stupid!

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